Memorable Quotes- Jerry Uelsmann & Duane Michals

There are a many thoughtful photographers out there who speak eloquently about their work and photography in general, but few are as inspiring as Jerry Uelsmann and Duane Michals. (I could list more, like Kip Fulbeck, for instance, but will limit myself for now.)

Last month I attended the Society for Photographic Education’s national conference, where 82-year old Uelsmann was a featured speaker. Here are a few of the more memorable things he said:

“I asked an historian, “What IS history?”, and he answered, “History amounts to those things that you choose to remember.”

“The camera is a license to explore.”

“The viewer always completes the image.”

“Art is one of those areas where there is more than one right answer.”

“Once you think you know everything, the questioning stops.”

And perhaps my favorite: “I don’t want this presentation to be a snore-fest with yawn-sauce on the side.”

Michals, who is now 85, was equally entertaining and challenging when I heard him speak at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 2000. Here are some of his most memorable lines:

“Do not try to be perfect, please. Perfect is boring. Your humanity lies in your vulnerability.”

“Pay attention to your mind. You put crap in your mind, you get crap in your life. You put good things in your mind, you get good things in your life.”

“I think about thinking.”

“Don’t come crying to me because nothing happened. Nothing happened because you didn’t make it happen.”

“You have 2 choices in life: doing and bullshit. Don’t tell me what you are going to do. Show me what you have done.”

“Guess when you were born? You were born now.”

When golfer Arnold Palmer died in 2016, it was written of him, “People loved him because, in a world of sullen superstars, Palmer radiated joy and delight in the treasures of his life… He had a wonderful time being Arnold Palmer and squeezed every drop of juice from the experience.”
The same can be said about Uelsmann and Michals, both giants of 20th century photography.

The Challenge of Titling Artwork

Giving titles to artwork is a challenging but rewarding part of the creative process. Although I am sure that there are many artists out there who have no problem coming up with titles, there are many others for whom it is a difficult or thankless task.

I’ve talked with artists who hate assigning titles, and often default to “Untitled No. XXX” for their work. This is, of course, an option, but one that can work against an artist in certain respects. First, it can make it challenging to figure out which piece a potential buyer or curator is talking about unless you are an artist who has a great inventory system that allows for quickly finding your artwork in your archives. The longer you make art, the harder it may be to identify and find an untitled piece without a detailed and up-to-date inventory database. (I’m speaking from personal experience here.) Second, it can turn off certain viewers and buyers who welcome titles, as they can add meaning or provide insight into the work.

It is this value-added aspect of titling artwork that makes me work hard at coming up with an effective title. Titling forces me to engage with my art in a different way than when I am making technical or aesthetic decisions about it. I title all the artwork that I exhibit, making sure to title each body of work, as well as each piece within a series.

Sometimes titling is really hard. This was the case for the overall title of the body of work that became “Tears of Stone: World War I Remembered”. I agonized over what the title should be, making long lists of potential titles, all of which were lame or awful. It wasn’t until I was passing by one of my bookcases and my eye fell on a Chieftains CD titled “Tears of Stone” that I had a eureka moment. Conversely, sometimes titling is drop-dead easy. This was the case with each image in the “Tears of Stone” series.  Rather than give the pictures metaphorical titles, I knew that many viewers would be very interested in the type of place and the location at which each shot was taken. The location would further indicate the scope of the war’s impact the nations that fought in it. Here’s an example:

Chatham Naval Memorial, Chatham, England

On the other hand, sometimes metaphorical titles can be very effective. Here’s an example from “The Primitive Streak” series that functions both literally and metaphorically, and which depicts my nieces as they neared the end of their childhood:

Holding On

How do you come up with a great title for a piece of art? For me, it varies. Sometimes it comes from an external source like a discussion I have with a friend, a line in a book, newspaper, poem or song, or from listening to a podcast, as happened with the two series “The Wind Telephone” (This American Life) and “The Primitive Streak” (Radiolab). Sometimes a title is suggested by the artwork itself as I work on it. Using a thesaurus can be enormously helpful. I now keep an ongoing list of potential titles, knowing that I may never create a piece that matches up to one of those titles.

The main criteria I use for judging whether a title is effective or not  is, “Does it add something to the experience of looking at the art without explaining too much?”

There really isn’t one defining formula for creating successful titles for your artwork. Here are three different blogs that make excellent suggestions:

HOW TO TITLE YOUR ART SO IT SELLS

Do You Think Titles of Art Matter?

How to Find the Perfect Title for Art

 

 

 

The Value of Feedback from Viewers

Once an exhibition goes up, it can be difficult for artists to get feedback about viewers’ reaction to the work, especially if the venue is not in the place you live. But because “The Thread in the River” is currently being shown at the Weston Art Gallery in Cincinnati (until April 2), I have been able to meet with multiple classes of high school and university students who have shared their thoughts about what they see in the work and how they experience it. This has, in turn, led me to think a lot about how I might proceed as I continue to develop this project.

A student asked me why I presented the images that appear in “Twelve Summers” as a video animation, rather than as still images. 

Twelve Summers, 1999 – 2013

My answer was that I had tried out numerous ways of presenting them as still images, both on the wall and in book format. But nothing I tried captured the idea of the sometimes subtle transformation of a child from one age to the next. I was also failing in conveying the idea that our childhood selves are still buried somewhere deep inside us, despite the layers of complexity that we gain as we age into adulthood. Putting these pictures into a video that allowed for layering them with different levels of opacity allowed me to speak to these ideas successfully. This conversation made me ask myself in what other ways I could use video presentations for future work.

Discussing “The Wind Telephone” with students reinforced for me how important it is to not have the work answer too many questions for the viewer, to let the audience ask and answer questions for themselves.

The Wind Telephone

They liked it a lot that this particular body of work didn’t explain the answers that my relatives gave me when responding to the questions I had asked of them. The students said that it made them ask themselves what their own answers would be to these questions, and made them more interested in the work.

One series, titled “The Long Arc”, consists of many self-portraits that I began taking when I got pregnant in 1995 and continue to take up to the present day. I asked the students what they saw as the difference between my self-portraits and “selfies”, as they take them and understand them. One students’ reply has stuck with me (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here): “Selfies are all about covering up who you really are, while your pictures are about revealing who you really are.”

While talking with these students, I felt like I was learning things about my own work that I hadn’t yet seen. Unless I am invited to an exhibition venue to talk about my work, opportunities to talk with viewers in a gallery while a show is up don’t happen a lot. Because this is the first time that this work has been exhibited, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to get this kind of feedback.